There’s a certain kind of historical fiction premise that I particularly love. The author finds a gap in the historical record and writes a story that connects previously unconnected events and people. B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist is just that kind of book. In Shapiro’s version of art history, the artists of early Abstract Expressionism made a quantum leap in their style at the beginning of World War II. The real history didn’t quite work out that way, but the Shapiro’s protagonist Alizée Benoit is a fictional point of connection between Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning and the refugee crisis in the late 1930s and early 40s.
Alizée Benoit, like many artists in the late 1930s, works for the Works Progress Administration. Hundreds of artists create paintings and sculpture and other works of art all across the country. Unfortunately for Alizée, she’s stuck doing representational art; the WPA doesn’t spend money on abstract art. She has to work on her art in her free time. A chance meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt (which strains credulity) leads to bigger things. If all Alizée had to worry about was art, she’d be set at this point.
Alizée’s family is still in France. And they’re Jewish. On one hand, Alizée is on her way to being the Next Big Thing in the art world. On the other, she’s running herself ragged trying to get visas for her brother and aunts and uncles and cousins. Here Shapiro gets closer to actual history. Evidence has been found proving that Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long caused up to 90% of visa applications from Europe to be denied. Long wrote a memo in June 1940 stating:
We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas. (Source*)
Thousands of lives could have been saved if Long and his confederates hadn’t rejected so many visas.
Most of The Muralist is about Alizée two quests: to make her kind of art and to get her family back. For me, this would have been enough story to fill a novel. Shapiro gives us one more story to go with Alizée’s. Danielle is Alizée’s granddaughter. She’s a failed artist who works as an authenticator for Christie’s. We’re told early on that Alizée disappeared in December 1940. Danielle is obsessed with figuring out what happened with her great-aunt.
Danielle’s side of the story slows things down a little, relieving the tension that Alizée’s side raises. This might sound like a bad thing, but Alizée’s story is almost unbearably tense. She’s bipolar, trying to rescue her family, trying to tell the world about Long, trying to make art. It’s a lot for any brain to deal with. This is a book that will make your heart race, then break it.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
* Robert L. Beir. (13 December 2013). Roosevelt and the Holocaust: How FDR Saved the Jews and Brought Hope to a Nation. Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated. pp. 136,137.